As my plane flew south toward Louisville, Kentucky, and Muhammad Ali's funeral, memories of The Greatest came and went like windows into the past -- a series of flashbacks that reminded me how much he was a part of me. It's probably that way with a lot of Baby Boomers.
I wasn't an Ali fanatic. He wasn't my favorite fighter. But starting when he won a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics, Ali was a constant source of humor and hubris, a provocateur who sold tickets and made everybody pay attention whether they wanted to or not.
My first brush with him came unexpectedly.
In late December 1963, my family piled into father's Plymouth and headed to Miami Beach for Christmas holiday. Sun, sand and swimming was on everybody's itinerary, but I had a secret agenda that had nothing to do with mistletoe and reindeer.
I'd read in the newspaper that Luis Rodriguez was going to fight Wilbur McClure at the Miami Beach Auditorium during our stay. This would be my chance to actually attend the fight; a prospect that had me far more excited than any of the gift-wrapped boxes in the trunk of our car.
My cousin and I bought two tickets in the balcony and were watching the preliminaries when a commotion erupted somewhere on the lower level. Even though there was a fight going on in the ring, people were leaving their seats and rushing toward the source of the fuss.
My first thought was that a brawl had broken out among some of the fans, not an uncommon occurrence at a prizefight. But when I leaned over the rail and stretched my neck to see what was going on, I got my first look at Cassius Clay in the flesh.
The Louisville Lip was standing with his back against the wall, waving a fistful of money over his head and offering to take bets from anybody who wanted to back prohibitive favorite Sonny Liston in their upcoming fight.
Clay (who was a few months from becoming first Cassius X, then Muhammad Ali) had that familiar mock-angry look on his face as he alternately harangued and cajoled his audience. There was lots of laughter and playful exchange of insults, but I didn't see people reaching for their wallets.
A few months later, a friend of mine was reaching for his wallet so often he ran out of money. And it was my fault.
I told my buddy Marty that he could clean up on the Liston-Clay fight by betting big on the favorite, sucking in the other kids by giving them 7-1 odds on Liston. I assured him Sonny would break the kid in two, and he believed me.
I think Marty ended up paying out around 60 bucks when Liston stayed on his stool at the end of the seventh round. He wanted me to pay half the debt but settled for a quart of cheap vodka.
When Ali stood tall and refused to take that fateful step and join the military, I hung a large photo of him on my studio wall and wrote "a better man than most" on it. I was eligible for the draft, too, and I didn't have "nothing against no Viet Cong," either. But most of all I didn't want to die.
Of course, I knew Ali had done something that I wasn't brave enough to do, but I didn't care. After all, we can't all be heroes. He made me proud to be a boxing fan.
Maybe that's part of the reason I bought a ticket to his embarrassing choreographed "computer fight" with Rocky Marciano -- a way to help Ali when he had no other way of making a buck. Curiosity played a role, too.
I walked into the lobby of the movie house where it was playing in Philadelphia, and there was Ali, who was living right across the Ben Franklin Bridge in Cherry Hill at the time. He was surrounded by fans and a semicircle of scowling men, identically dressed in black suits, white shirts and black bowties. Ali signed my ticket stub, and I've cursed myself hundreds of times for losing it.
The so-called fight was worse than I thought it would be. Ali was out of shape with unsightly love handles hanging over his trunks. Marciano was wearing an unconvincing toupee. And when Marciano, his face slathered with fake blood, knocked out Ali in the 13th round, Ali stood up in the back of the theater and yelled, "That computer must have been made in Mississippi."
It bought the house down. Ali's words emphasized what a farce it was, which somehow made it even less relevant than it already was and took away much of the sting.
Nothing appeased the capacity closed-circuit crowd at the old Philadelphia Arena the night of March 8, 1971, when Joe Frazier won a 15-round decision in one of the icon fights of the 20th century. Even though the decision was fair, fans in Frazier's hometown went ballistic. They booed and jeered, threw chairs, and any people foolish enough to say they thought Frazier won were likely to lose their teeth.
That's the sort of passion and blind loyalty Ali generated. He wasn't just a pretty face who could box. He was a leader, a favorite son and, at that time, a king without a crown.
Frazier won the battle, but Ali would win the war, taking his career to yet another level with the "Rumble in the Jungle" and the "Thrilla in Manila." By then Ali was the most famous man in the world but also one of the most accessible. His fans went along for the ride, and for a while it seemed as if it would never end. But it did.
It should have ended with Howard Cosell reciting Bob Dylan's "Forever Young" as Ali coasted home to a clear-cut decision over Leon Spinks, the night in New Orleans when he won the heavyweight championship for a third time. At the time, I sat there with tears welling up in my eyes as the pair of old campaigners shared their final magic moment together.
But life is not a storybook. Cosell quit, but Ali and Spinks fought on. It did neither of them any good. But they were fighters, and fighters fight for as long as they can. It's who they are.
But even as Ali's illness deepened and parts of him floated away, he was always with us, the spark still glowed within.
Now that familiar touchstone we've relied on for so long is gone -- and the world is emptier for it. But nowhere near as empty as it would be if Ali had never lived.